How to sum up a semester of studying Topias through the lens of utopian science fiction? How to tie together works spanning Forster (1905) and Robinson (1992)? How to summarize theories as diverse as classical positivism and posthumanity?
Of course, blogging as a medium is limited to addressing these questions at length. So let me offer a few thoughts that stand out for me as I look back on the semester.
One way of tying together the SF works we have read is how they may (or may not) conform to conventions of utopian literature: the isolated community; the traveler who is shown its marvels; the absence of a money economy and of private property; the stasis of perfection that admits no decline or need for improvement.
Works that may (with qualifications) fit these conventions are Herland, Dr Bloodmoney, The Dispossessed, Woman on the Edge of Time, A Door into Ocean, and Red Mars.
> Herland is the clearest fit with classical utopian conventions, with A Door into Ocean running second
> Dr Bloodmoney begins as a dystopia but might cross over into Utopia if the second half of the book is seen as a journey through a "wondrous" land that evokes Dick's hopeful vision of people who are basically admirable
> The Dispossessed is, as Le Guin admits and we discussed at length in class, an "ambiguous" utopia
> Woman on the Edge of Time presents the utopia of Mattapoisett, by also draws energy from its dystopic visions of 1970s America and of Gildina's alternate world
> Red Mars depicts more of a utopia-in-becoming
Our other readings brought us into the dystopian genre: The Machine Stops, Brave New World, The Sheep Look Up, and Tiptree's short fiction (e.g., "Houston, Houston").
That leaves only Neuromancer, which I can't quite place in the utopia/dystopia continuum. Perhaps this is because Neuromancer is, for reasons discussed in class, a fairly conventional novel. Its reputation derives from bringing SF from outer space to cyberspace.
Another way of tying these works together is with the definition of Utopia I've been developing through my research this semester—namely that secularization is a precondition, along with its concomitant belief in the perfectibility of humankind. Thus, where Paradise is a divine provision, Utopia is built by human hands.
All the utopias we read—those by Gilman, Dick, Le Guin, Piercy, Slonczewski, and Robinson—start with a premise of human perfectibility. And in my mind, this raises two questions:
> Is the corollary proposition that dystopias assume human incorrigibility? Or do authors of dystopias assume that readers, once made aware of dystopic possibilities, can avoid them? I'm not so sure. The Machine Stops, Brave New World, The Sheep Look Up, and "Houston, Houston" all end in defeat. Is this cautionary or does it reflect a pragmatic pessimism?
> Though I'm satisfied with my evolving definition of Utopia (as a response to specific historical conditions, albeit an expression of innate human desires) on the macro level, in the future I may also explore the micro level. Namely, although the concept of Utopia arose with modernity, why does its literary expression come and go over the decades?
There were the Gilded Age utopias of Bellamy, Morris and Wells, followed by a long dry spell until the feminist utopias of the 1970s. Why the hiatus? If the basic concept of Utopia is tied to the historical conditions of modernity, are its contemporary coming and goings also tied to historical conditions?
That is, why did the conditions of the Gilded Age give rise to Bellamy, Morris, and Wells? Why did the conditions of early-to-mid 20th century—that period defined by two world wars—damp down literary expressions of utopia? Why did the conditions of the 1970s and 80s give rise to two successive waves of feminist utopias?
Is there a common thread?
+ How are the 1880s thru 90s (the heyday of Progressivism) similar to the 1970s thru 80s (a high-water mark for feminism)? Were they both periods of relatively peaceful social change and resistance to powerful Establishments, when the striving for human perfectibility was strong?
+ And is there a common thread between the 1910s thru 60s and the 1990s thru 2000s? Are these decades similar in being periods of war and postwar adjustment? The 1910s thru 60s were decades of unprecedented upheaval through war. The 1990s thru 2000s saw the end of an unprecedented 50-year Cold War, whose ending permitted long-festering regional hatreds to resurface and become globalized. Does human perfectibility seem less likely in such eras?
Digesting all the theories I encountered this semester will take me awhile. I found Jameson (even his semiotic squares!) and Garrard accessible. On the other hand, continental philosophers (LeFebvre, de Certeau, Foucault, Heidegger) are still somewhat of a struggle for me.
Continental philosophy becomes gradually easier as I find incremental opportunities to work these perspectives into my own research projects—for example, Foucault's views on discourse, discipline, and ethics are proving helpful for my dissertation. Yet these are not "Eureka" moments but a process that occurs over time.
So let me wrap up with some "takeaways" from this course . . .
> I got a paper that I hope is presentable and publishable
> I received a broad-brush introduction to the interesting scholarly conversations going on in utopian studies, so that I now have the foundation for another research interest on which I can write and publish more in the future
> Though my MA is in Comm Studies, my (1970s) undergraduate degree was in English Lit; so I had the experience of, in a sense, "returning to my roots" and taking a literature class for the first time in 30 years, getting reacquainted with the literature side of English Studies that may be part of the departmental world I will inhabit in the future
> Finally, after starting out the course with a longtime personal interest in SF, I read a lot of good books that I enjoyed and found intellectually stimulating and challenging, many of which I may (because I'm an inveterate "re-reader" of my personal library) revisit for years to come